Time to embrace remote-first working before it’s too late

Despite bold claims about remote working during the pandemic, many companies are retreating to an office-centric approach. This is a mistake. Remote work is more productive, boosts job satisfaction and opens up a deeper talent pool.

Last summer, Big Tech companies proclaimed the 9-to-5 workday dead and speculated that employees might never return to the office after the Covid-19 pandemic. It seemed that the long-anticipated remote working revolution had arrived. But some tech giants have got cold feet.

Google is accelerating its plan to bring staff back into the office. Employees are expected to live within “commuting distance” of the office and anyone who wants to work from home for more than 14 days will have to apply for permission. LinkedIn, meanwhile, recently gave its workers a paid week off to combat burnout, but will expect them to be in the office at least half the time when they return.

This is a missed opportunity. Hybrid working approaches are not the answer and truly flexible work isn’t about rehashing office perks. The only viable approach to the future of work is remote-first working, which is cheaper, more efficient, and improves job satisfaction.

Hindered by the office

Over the last year, workers have proved to their bosses that they are capable of working efficiently and effectively from home. So why are companies like Google rushing to get everyone back to the office?

Arvind Krishna, CEO of IBM, says he fears that remote workers will find that their career trajectory suffers. He argues that learning to manage people or building a team culture requires office-based work. Amazon, meanwhile, said: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.”

The flip side to those arguments is that when they are not collaborating and inventing together, office-based employees are in noisy environments, distracted by ringing phones and questions from colleagues who pass by their desk. In many of the arguments for office-centric work it is possible to detect the old suspicion that employees cannot be trusted to work efficiently unless they are seen to be working.

In any case, workers can still collaborate using digital technology, as most have been since the pandemic began. The last year has shown that many tasks which people once thought could only be done in the office can now be handled just as effectively remotely. In fact, some presentations and meetings might be better handled virtually.

And when not in meetings, remote working allows people to work in the environment that is best for them and the task at hand. It makes them more efficient and effective. For the employer, remote work opens up a much broader talent pool. The best people can be recruited from anywhere in the world, they could be people fitting their work around childcare or other caring duties, or they might be people with disabilities that make it difficult for them to work full-time in an office.

Time to commit to remote-first

Some organisations are beginning to come around. JP Morgan and HSBC have said they will allow thousands of employees to move away from the office permanently, while Spotify says all its employees can follow a ‘work from anywhere’ model and be home-based all the time if they choose.

Of course, some will still prefer the office. The important thing is to create a culture that is remote-first, rather than hybrid. There is a difference. Hybrid approaches tend to assume that the ‘default’ workspace is the office. This often puts remote workers at a disadvantage. They can be left out of meetings, don’t hear about news of major decisions and often miss out on culture-building events in the office. Out of sight can mean out of mind.

Remote-first working, on the other hand, doesn’t consider the office to be the default workplace for anyone - it’s just one of several options. These companies must handle communication so that everyone is included in news, meetings and other crucial events. They need to ensure all resources are available equally to those in the office and those working remotely.

While hybrid offices tend to have enough space for everyone to be in the office, remote-first companies can operate much smaller hubs with a variety of workspaces. By opting for remote first, the money saved could even go towards new and improved employee perks that offer a replacement for in-person interaction in a better way, for example a summer beach break or winter ski trip. 

Recognising remote working rewards

But the benefits of remote working go beyond just saving money on office space. Remote workers report higher job satisfaction and a greater sense of trust. The growing adaptability of digital tools to enable remote work often helps to make processes more efficient.

In turn, choosing this way of working avoids a split between those in the office, and those not, when it comes to resources, networking and collaborating. 

Remote working isn’t about putting everyone at a disadvantage. Businesses simply need to work to make remote working a better approach for everyone. 

Companies that fully embrace remote systems now will be the most successful in the future because they are building processes that allow for staff to be more productive, more satisfied and to use remote work to enrich all areas of their lives. That, in turn, will make them more attractive places to work.

Businesses should offer freedom to move away from the regular 9-to-5, the ability to live and work anywhere, and self-determined career paths, all the while paired with regular team meetups. While it’s important to promote a good work-life balance, more flexibility around when employees open their laptops gives businesses the opportunity to employ a broader, more diverse workforce.

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